People, zoo animals flee Duluth flooding

Published 7:39 am Thursday, June 21, 2012

DULUTH — Jeb, the black and brown dwarfed goat at Lake Superior Zoo, sought out Brad Jago every day for a little love, attention and a gentle scratch on the forehead where his horns once stood.

On Wednesday it was Jago seeking Jeb, as the groundskeeper and the rest of the zoo staff scrambled to find and recapture animals that escaped during torrential overnight flooding that forced the evacuation of some homes in a low-lying neighborhood in the port city of Duluth.

Zoo workers safely recovered two seals and a polar bear that had managed to escape their enclosures but Jeb and a dozen or so other animals from the zoo’s barnyard exhibit — including other goats, sheep and a miniature donkey — drowned.

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“That was a tough loss,” said Jago, one of several employees who spent Wednesday afternoon grieving and regrouping after the exhausting search that began before dawn.

The storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain on the northeastern Minnesota city, which sits on a steep rocky hillside that leads down to Lake Superior.

There were no immediate reports of serious injuries, though an 8-year-old boy was swept about six blocks through a culvert in Duluth. The boy suffered some scrapes and bruises but was fine, St. Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips said, calling it a “miracle out of this whole disaster.”

Gov. Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency Wednesday and authorized the National Guard to help the city of 86,000 cope with extensive damage. There were multiple reports of streets having been washed out, and parts of the zoo remain submerged Wednesday hours after the rain stopped.

Furniture from exhibits lay scattered about the zoo and water marks showed flooding that reached as high as 14 feet off the ground in places, said Peter Pruett, the zoo’s director of animal management.

Pruett’s day began with a 3 a.m. phone call that someone had spotted a seal on a street near the zoo. He went to the scene, and found the harbor seal, Feisty, in the street, corralled by three police cars.

“She was right by the storm drain, so she had water all around her,” he said. Pruett got a piece of plywood and nudged Feisty along, about a half a block, back to the zoo.

As he was walking with Feisty, he knew her escape could mean trouble, “because if the seal’s out, the polar bear very well could be out too,” he said.

He rounded up zoo employees, who answered the call and began searching for animals in the darkness. One employee found the lions and tigers were still in their exhibits, which was a relief. But Berlin, the polar bear, wasn’t in sight.

“A dangerous animal is out and it’s the middle of the night, and you cross your fingers and you pray to whomever you want to pray to that she’s still there and not terrorizing some other place,” said Pruett.

Thankfully, a zookeeper spotted the bear at about 5 a.m. atop the rock wall that encloses her exhibit. The zoo vet and a police officer approached her in a squad car, enabling the vet to safely shoot her with a tranquilizer gun.

“Once we got that first visual on her, I basically let out a big sigh of relief. I knew she was going to be safe,” said Pruett. He said Berlin was groggy and dirty from her ordeal a few hours later, but otherwise OK.

After the bear was subdued, zoo officials got a call that Vivian, the other harbor seal, was seen about a half mile away on a trail. Officials picked her up safely as well.

There were other bright spots: Pruett was happy when he saw the red foxes, who he thought had been killed. He found them “alive and huddling together, scared as can be.”

Maicie Sykes, the lead zookeeper, said even those animals that lived had trouble — as evidenced by high water marks in their exhibits.

“They went through a nightmare of their own. But they are alive,” she said. She began crying as she talked about the animals that were lost.

“It’s completely devastating,” she said.

Pruett said grief counselors will be brought in to help employees.

The zoo was closed Wednesday, and would stay closed until officials determined that all the pathways, bridges and other amenities were safe. It will take some time to assess the damage, Pruett said.

The zoo has had minor flooding before, but never like this, Pruett said.

“We filled up like a bathtub, and it should not have been that way,” he said. “Everything was going so fast. You have a plan, but your plan doesn’t take into account the biblical proportions.”

Don Ness, Duluth’s mayor, said it may take time for the damage to become fully apparent. He said the volume of rain in a short period puts a tremendous amount of stress on sewer and road systems.

“We’re concerned about washouts and sinkholes and they’ll likely show themselves in the coming days. … The water is rushing so hard that we’re concerned about the integrity of the roadbeds being washed out,” he said.

Several major highways leading into the city were closed because of the flooding and authorities encouraged residents to stay home due to the volume of standing and rushing floods.

“It’s a mess,” said police spokesman Jim Hansen.

Authorities asked residents of the low-lying Fond du Lac neighborhood to leave their homes because of the rising level of the St. Louis River. Hansen said about a dozen homes were evacuated.

“Fortunately … it is a relatively small number of households that are being evacuated,” Ness said. “Most homes in Duluth are farther up the hill.”

The Red Cross opened two shelters for evacuees. The University of Minnesota Duluth campus closed Wednesday but planned to reopen Thursday.

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